How is anger sabotaging your life? Is there anything positive or helpful about anger? And how can you work through anger to live a better life? We’ve all experienced anger at one point or another. Among the anger-prone, some people show it more overtly, while others let anger fester under the surface. Others, meanwhile, seem to be ‘even-keel” and unaffected by anger. We’re not suggesting that an “anger-free” life is what you ought to strive for. In fact, that might not be possible. What we’ll discuss here is how to recognize anger before it escalates, how to address the source(s) of anger, and how to use strategies and tricks to keep you anger under control.
What is Anger? Where Does It Come From?
According to the American Psychological Association, anger is “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.” Anger, as you’ve most likely experienced, is accompanied by sudden (and temporary) physiological and biological changes. The big changes that we most often notice are the “adrenaline rush” with heightened blood pressure and increased heart rate. If you were looking at these functions on a chart or graph, the “anger” period – possibly measured in seconds or perhaps minutes – would be a noticeable “spike.” Also associated with anger are flushed face and hands, tightened muscles, heightened senses, etc. What’s happening externally during this time, in other words what would people around us see or hear in our behaviour? It varies by person and by event, of course, but common anger behaviour includes:
- speaking in a raised voice
- yelling, shouting or screaming
- speaking quickly and perhaps less coherently
- rapid and bigger body gestures, pointing, jumping up and down, etc.
- throwing objects
- other violent actions such as hitting, kicking, etc.
What causes anger? In short, anger occurs as a result of an internal or external happening. The obvious ones tend to be external. At times we might get angry at someone for something that they did. Please note that we’re avoiding verbiage such as, “he made me angry,” as this would imply that other people have control over our emotions. It’s very important that we make the distinction between someone’s actions and how we react to them. Instead, we want to focus on how we feel about what someone did, since anger is a feeling. And in reality, sometimes it’s not even what that person did that warranted our anger, but rather a “trigger” of something else in our lives, some other deficit or area of frustration, either from present day or even from well in the past. That brings us to the other type of anger, the internal variety, inwardly directed. We’re either mad at ourselves for something we did, or we’re frustrated about problems or issues going on in our lives. Also in this category is anger stemming from earlier events in our lives, traumatic events or enraging circumstances that have followed us through life and can still trigger anger today.
What are the Causes of Our Anger? And Is All Anger Bad?
Is all anger bad? Not necessarily. It really depends on what we do with it. Let’s start by recognizing that anger exists, that it’s natural, and that it’s not something that we can or should look to eliminate. Anger has been with us humans since the very early days, existing within us to protect us in “fight or flight” situations as a heightened response. In other words, anger has a motivational side to it. And that can be a good thing. How we harness that anger – and formulate our responses – will determine whether we achieve what we want or, as is often unfortunately the case with anger, our goals are thwarted. To be on the right side of the anger equation, we need a plan. But before we get to that plan, we need to understand why we’re angry in the first place.
Earlier we mentioned the events of our past, particularly of our youth, that can be brought back to the surface by “triggers” in our present day. All children get frustrated, for example, be it in ‘normal circumstances such as not getting one’s way, or under more challenging scenarios such as abuse or neglect. In these cases, and in many others, a child may also have borne witness to an angry parent, thus acquired behaviour such as rage and outbursts. While they probably know now that this behaviour is “wrong” as an adult, they continue with these actions or become triggered even when meaning well. This also brings into play the infamous, ongoing debate over genetics versus environment. Are some people more “wired” for anger? Or did these people happen to experience more trying circumstances and witness more than their share of angry behaviour? While we’re not going to attempt to go down that rabbit hole, it’s worth noting that there are merits to both sides. It is true that some children grow up in ‘nurturing’ environments, and reap a lifetime of benefits from having been shown how to deal with adversity and frustration. But we also see examples of siblings who grew up in the same environment, and yet have markedly different approaches to dealing with anger. And, to be clear, it’s not just about our childhoods. Life could be going along quite swimmingly, for example, and then a traumatic event or series of events could occur well into adulthood, causing anger issues to ensue. On the “wired” side of the argument, anxiety and depression are also to be considered as factors for anger. In short, once we recognize the anger and some potential sources or triggers, our next and most vital steps are to deal with it constructively.
How Do We Deal With Anger?
Now that we know why we’re angry, what are some tools and tips to work through our anger and achieve a better life as a result?
The best “first step” you can take is to acknowledge your anger, recognize when and why it happens, but also make the commitment that you don’t have to react to that anger the same way ever again. Whatever has happened to you, happened in the past. No amount of anger in the present or future is going to change the events of the past or somehow “make it right.” What you can do for yourself – as well as for your family and friends – is to be the best version of you that you can be. That means being conscious of your past, and conscientious of how the actions you take will affect others. Anger is a vicious circle: it tends to incite more anger. Despite how someone “makes you feel” (and we know this to be untrue, it’s simply how you feel as a reaction to their actions), you can make the choice not to escalate the anger, to de-escalate the tension and work proactively to find better solutions. How, exactly, are you supposed to do this? While there’s not one “right” way, here are some suggestions.
1. Recognize the anger, and know that this anger will eventually need a release
Once you’ve identified the anger and its source, you’re good to go, right? Not quite. Anger is a force that needs an outlet. The textbook release, of course, is “explosion,” anger blowing up in rage, with all the negatives that go along. That’s what we want to avoid. The opposite of rage, however, is keeping anger bottled up inside, and that can be equally bad. Not expressing these emotions is usually just a deferral, a recipe for disaster in the form of either:
- Anger releasing as rage at a later date, with worse effects;
- Anger turned inward, resulting in self-hatred, self-sabotage, etc.
- Anger carried out in the form of passive-aggressive behaviour (taking it out on others in more subtle ways, but ultimately with long-term deleterious effects)
None of these are good. Instead, we have to find positive releases for that anger.
2. Find your calm centre
When you find yourself experiencing those classic “anger” signs, it’s time to react firstly by remaining calm and thinking it through. Do you find yourself wanting to say or do something hurtful to the person(s) you’re angry at? Don’t! Instead, allow a pause to be your friend. Count to ten. Gather your thoughts. Breathe. Ask yourself:
- Why are you really angry?
- Is it this person’s ‘fault’?
- What can you do or say that will help them listen to you and understand what you’d like them to say or do? (hint: it’s not yelling!)
It will take time to get into the habit of this, but the time and effort will be well worth your investment.
3. What can you own?
Before pointing the finger at others, ask yourself how much of this situation really lies within you. Remember, YOU are the only person who has control over your emotions. Owning your anger means that nobody else can. Recognize where your shortfalls are, do more to accommodate the other person(s), and make it your goal to work towards finding mutually beneficial solutions in a calm manner. If you own your anger, the other party will probably step up and reciprocate.
4. Did we mention breathing? That’s important. Exercise, too.
In Step 2, we talked about breathing. That’s key. Deep breaths, in and out, over and over, can help you calm down. But you don’t have to wait for anger to arise in order to breathe! It’s a practice you can incorporate into your lifestyle on a consistent basis. There are breathing exercises, for example; meditation is quite popular nowadays, and many will attest as to the successful results they’ve seen from this practice. Exercise is another one. It’s not just about keeping fit or losing weight; exercise releases endorphins, which are known to have a positive, countering effect on things like depression, anxiety and/or anger.
5. Find creative outlets for your anger
In addition to breathing and exercise, which are physical and physiological ways of working through anger, you can also deal with anger through creative pursuits. Do you have a hobby? Maybe something that you’d like to do, or do more of? There are some great ways to work through (and off) anger, especially in pursuits that involve creativity. Art is a fantastic outlet. Working with your hands and eyes is particularly effective: painting, clay-making, even photography are ideal hobbies. Some people pursue performance art, such as acting, comedy, etc. Others write. Even if you don’t fancy yourself as an aspiring novelist, keeping a journal is a beneficial way to monitor your anger and finding ways to express yourself rather than directing it at others.
6. Back in the situation, remember to express your anger
Once you’re in a better place, able to handle the anger with focus and positive energy, you can now express your anger and look to build solutions. Remember not to keep that anger bottled up. Instead, develop other, more positive forms of expression. Instead of saying to other person, “you made me angry” or “…when you did that…” use phrases like “I felt angry about this because…” Focus on your feelings, and then turn the effort towards suggestions of how the other person could act or speak that would help you. Work towards consensus and “win-win” solutions.
7. Is your anger lingering? Don’t carry it with you. It may be time to seek help.
If you find yourself having practiced the above steps and still burdened with anger, that’s not the end of the world. The important thing now is to recognize the anger that you still carry, and understand that you might not be able to solve this all on your own. There’s no shame in that.
At Capital Choice Counselling in Ottawa, we’ll help you find solutions for your anger. We want to work with you, to empower you to own your anger and not let it take over your life. Our trained counsellors specialize in anger management, and their experience and insight will help you overcome your anger issues and find effective tools and strategies to live a better life. Contact us to set up a consultation and begin the journey to recovery and success.